The Censored Memory

In 1956 I won a prize, a flip in a DH 89 biplane, a real event, the first time I'd left the ground, in this lifetime.

    In 1966, age twenty-three, I left my employer to travel. That company was De Havilland when I started there.

    I spent the summer of sixty-six in Spanish sunshine. Ronda disturbed me in a way I could not define. I moved on and soon forgot, but I still have the photograph I took of Puente Nuevo. Those were real events. Fate then intervened.

    For six decades I wondered, where was I before? Not the ageing parts you see and touch, but an ethereal spirit, perhaps eternal.

    In 2006 I was hospitalised in Johannesburg, recollections of those nights imprinted in my mind. In intensive care, conscious memory subsumed into a broader realm, morphine merging recollections from this life into a time before my birth, with terrifying clarity.

    I returned to England in 2016, after fifty-six years in the real world of engineering, to record a lifetime and the one before.


    In 1936 I was twenty-three, but my conscious mind inhabited a body with a name I can’t recall.

    Early in July, I was flattered by invitation to lunch with two gentlemen, at Simpson’s in The Strand. One was a pilot whom I’d met, the other an army officer. He wasted little time, firing questions at me.

    “Did you vote in the last election?”

    “I did.”

    “How did you vote?”

    “Sir, I understood my vote was confidential,” I replied.

    “It was, but in this context, I need to know.”

    "I voted for Mr Baldwin."


    “I believed a different vote was closer to Stalin’s doctrine, which frightens me.”

    “Good. You have a pilot’s license?”

    “I have, but not many civilian hours.”

    “No matter. I have a job for you.”

    “I have employment, sir.”

    “It’s in the national interest. My colleague here is a pilot, I am not. We need a co-pilot for a journey of profound importance to world events.”

    “How long will this employment last, sir?”

    Our wine arrived. The officer sipped the red Bordeaux, nodded his approval, but he would not look me in the eye. “Can you shoot straight?”

    “My basic training taught me to handle a rifle.”

    He nodded. “The first part should take two weeks. After that, you may be allocated other duties.”

    I liked the prospect less. I’d completed five years with the RAF three months ago, but still a reserve for years. This man might pull strings and have me recalled. "Where will we be going, sir?"

    He pursued a sprout around his plate then impaled it. “All in good time. I’m not authorised to disclose the destination.”

    I looked to the pilot for reassurance, but he avoided my eye. Conversation faltered. The roast beef was excellent, but I would have enjoyed it better in convivial company.

    “We’ll be in touch,” said the military man. He left the pilot to settle the bill.

    We met at Croydon early, formalities waived. No one asked to see my passport.

    “The pilot’s already aboard, with two lady passengers.” The army officer nodded towards a twin-engine biplane, a DH 89 Dragon Rapide. While he ascended the steps, I slowed, inspected port ailerons, then strolled towards the tailplane.

    “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted.

    “Pre-flight checks.”

    He humphed and went inside.

    “My license is only valid for single-engine aircraft,” I informed the pilot as I leaned on the co-pilot’s seat.

    “Nothing about this mission is valid,” he replied. “We’ve been selected because we’re not high profile, unlikely to attract attention. Officially, we’re taking a holiday in the Canaries.”

    “And unofficially?” I inquired.

    “You’ll see. Sit down and familiarise yourself with the controls. I’m starting the engines.”

    I cannot recall all that journey, but I do remember the plane was a joy to fly. Predictable, quieter than anything I’d flown before, I was happy to log more hours than the official pilot. Physically the trip was relaxed, but the atmosphere tense between the travellers. We landed on Grand Canary three days later.

    “We’ll be here three days,” the army man informed us. “Make the most of it. Later there’s work to do.”

    His Spanish was fluent, mine not, but sunshine, inexpensive food and wine, it was a holiday. Then the General arrived. I’d never heard of him and had no inkling of what was to follow. He’d signed a declaration imposing martial law. We were to leave in a few hours for Morocco.

    Franco and the British officer were preoccupied, while I pored over maps of North-West Africa with the pilot. We night stopped in Casablanca, then flew north-east to the military airfield. After a low pass, the General instructed us to land. The officers greeted Franco as more than their army commander. That was obvious even without understanding the accolades. It was the first time I’d heard the word ‘generalissimo’.

    “I’m leaving with the ladies after we’ve refuelled,” announced the pilot.

    “Fine, I’ll check the plane,” I replied. There was an atmosphere of gathering military readiness which made me uncomfortable. Our army officer was uncommunicative, my contact with Franco limited to a daily, “Buenos diás.” I would be happy to leave.

    “I’d appreciate that,” said the pilot, “but you’re to stay awhile."

    Now I was angry. “I’ve had enough of secrecy. I want to know how I’m to get out of here, back to normality. I’ve done the co-pilot part. I’ve not signed up for embroilment in a military coup.”

    “I do what I’m contracted to do,” he said. "Best you don’t ask questions. You'll be all right, they've got a new toy for you. The ship has already docked. They're just puzzling how to get the box off without breaking it."

    I was still annoyed, but my curiosity piqued by what might be in the box. I'm not sure how much the pilot knew, but he was not to be drawn. The Dragon Rapide departed.

    I was not a smoker, but most soldiers were. Waiting on a hot and dusty airfield with no other English speakers, I could easily have acquired the habit. After days of boredom, a mirage of shimmering air finally materialised a train of donkeys into a coherent form. Two columns, each of eight animals, hauled a makeshift cart carrying a wooden crate. Turbaned Berbers goaded the donkeys, while two men rode the front board. As they approached, I saw one wore a Luftwaffe cap at a jaunty angle, a leather jacket slung over his shoulders. I presumed the oberleutnant insignia indicated a fellow airman.

    “Guten morgen Engländer. Sprichst du Deutsch?”

    “Nein,” I replied, exhausting my linguistic capability.

    He laughed. “Well then, we are both fortunate that my mother is Irish.” There was only a trace of the brogue. “Frans Bartmann,” he said, extending his hand.

    I’m sure I gave my name, but, ironically, I recall his, yet not my own.

    “I’ve brought a present,” he said, with a wave towards the packing crate.

    “It’s an aeroplane,” I replied. From the shape, it couldn’t be anything else.

    “Right first time, but weren’t you expecting it?”

    “I don’t know what to expect. This operation was shrouded in secrecy. Maybe you know more than me. What kind of aeroplane is it?”

    “It’s new. First flight only months ago. Brilliant, the Fi-156. It can land and take off on a handkerchief, stalls under 30 miles an hour. Best spotter ever. When it’s put together, you’ll see why it got the name Storch, Stork in English.”

    “Let’s get it out. I can’t wait to see it.”

    “Whoa, we need to be careful about opening the crate. Rigging the wings is easy, but we'll need help lifting to fit the undercarriage legs. We have time. Benzene is still on its way by mule train. Petrol here may not suit our engine.”

    Ingenious zippered canvas gave Frans access to check control cables. By nightfall, the aircraft stood ready but impotent on the stunted grass. Stork it was on those long shock-absorbing legs.

    Waiting for petrol, I learned something about the Third Reich. Frans wasn’t evasive, but he shrugged when asked about reports in British newspapers.

    “Not everything is right, but the Bolsheviks had to be curbed, and our nation brought together. Same here. This country will tear itself apart if the left has its way.”

    We were young, expecting utopia. In a different life, we’d have become great friends.

    Petrol was hazardous in the heat. The Berbers dug a pit to store the cans. It helped, but the shimmering vapour worried me more than any flying I’d ever done. The smokers’ curiosity was hard to curb.

    Magnetos off, I followed Frans’ instruction, winding the prop to prime the pumps. The engine’s cylinders showed pristine, side cowls left in the crate.

    “Should help,” he said. “We’ve no experience of air-cooled engines in these conditions.”

    “Clear,” he shouted. It sputtered. “Again.” It coughed blue smoke from the exhausts, then caught, settling into a reassuring clatter. “Coming?”

    I scrambled into the tandem seat behind Frans. He grinned, opening the throttle as I secured the door. The machine left the ground in a distance I’d thought impossible. Not designed for speed, but wing lift devices enhanced climb beyond anything I’d experienced. The vista of the Sahara opened south, while Spain brooded to the north. We banked and turned in circuits above the airfield, then recovered quickly from a stall. "Don't try it with power-off," he advised.

    My legs found the only problems with the Stork. Lack of adjustment on the pilot’s seat forced me to fly knees up. The rudder pedals were designed for daintier feet. Excruciating.

    Frans laughed. “You need to land often to refuel, then you can stretch your legs.”

    There was space enough behind the seats for fuel cans needed on our journey. Frans informed me that later Storks were built with a rear-facing gunner’s seat. I suppose it should have occurred to me that a spotter plane would get shot at, but I was naïve.

    The officer arrived with a letter for Frans from Berlin. We could see he was a colonel from the bars on his Spanish uniform, but informally he was Uncle Pepé. I cannot recall his real name, but he spoke to Frans in German and exchanged with me an English greeting.

    “I’m to assist Lufthansa crews," said Frans. “They’ll arrive in a few days to airlift personnel and equipment. Doesn’t say where to. Uncle Pepé also has a request. He wants us to fly to Spain for reconnaissance over Ronda. Seems that Republicans there have turned against the priesthood and anyone else they see as an enemy. Better load up petrol cans. We’re operational.”

    Was I obliged to go? Doing nothing on my own wasn’t an option.

    “We’ll look for a spot to touch down and refuel,” shouted Frans over the engine’s roar. “Don’t need much space, but we can’t fly low on an empty tank.”

    I gave a thumbs-up, descending to get a better view of the terrain. We could have used the road, but it seemed unwise to attract attention. The Stork carried no insignia or numerals, sky blue on the underside, desert camouflage on the upper. I hadn’t given that much thought, now it dawned, someone had a reason.

    On approach, the terrain looked stonier than I’d expected, but with her long-travel oleos, the Stork took it in her stride, slowing enough to turn well before the boulders at one end. We descended, stretched, then set about unloading petrol cans. A pistol with a long barrel and extended clip lay on Frans’ seat.

    “What’s that?” I asked.

    “Insurance,” he replied. “Schmeisser MP36 prototype. I have to report back on it. Not good. Keeps jamming.”

    I wondered what else was in Frans’ brief.

    Tanks full and back in the air, Frans flew the Stork, I read the map, adjusting headings. With a clear sky, the Tajo Canyon was impossible to miss.

    “Lot of people on the bridge,” he said, descending in a steep banked turn. “Am I imagining it, or are they robed people laying at the bottom of the gorge?”

    “Maybe a ceremony, blessing the water,” I replied. As those words left my lips, another black shape flew from the parapet. I was willing it to be a giant bird, my brain rejecting the reality of my eyes.”

    “Wait, I’ll go on a bit then fly low, back up the canyon.”

    I could count roof tiles as Frans dawdled the Stork towards Puente Nuevo. The figures below the bridge were still. On some, cassocks billowed, hiding the evidence, but not all. Skulls had cracked like soft-boiled eggs, blood and brains spattered all around.

    Frans opened the throttle and pulled the stick back, his relaxed expression gone. “We’ve seen enough. Let’s get back and tell Uncle Pepé… Scheisse!”

    As he spoke, I heard the ‘plink’. A hole had appeared in the wing, petrol vapourising in the vortex stream. “They’re shooting at us.”

    Frans nodded at my superfluous comment. “I’ll try to get a bit of altitude, but we’ll run one tank dry before long. We need to land out of range of the sharpshooters. There won’t be much in the other tank. I don’t want to stall without the engine on.”

    We strained our eyes, scanning for a likely spot. Frans let the engine idle as the altitude fell away, petrol still dribbling from the hole. It would not have been the first choice, but the Stork was magnificent. The engine coughed on the last precious drops, then propeller rotation ceased moments before her ungainly legs took her weight on a rutted road. He was out the instant we stopped.

    "Forget the left tank. We'll get two cans in the right tank then put distance between Ronda and us."

   Frans emptied the first can, I had the second ready as a bullet scarred an undercarriage leg. He tossed the can aside. “Give me the next one,” he ordered.

    I heard more shots. As Frans poured, I saw horsemen emerge from a dust cloud. “We need to go. Now.”

    In haste, petrol soaked his clothing. He flinched. He’d taken a hit from the gunmen closing on us.

    “Get in. Mags off,” he shouted. He hauled the prop two turns. “On.” The engine started.

    He limped to the passenger door and reached inside. The Schmeisser’s bolt clacked. His clothing erupted in flames as the automatic chattered at his tormentors, then jammed. “Go. Get off,” he screamed, writhing in the inferno. His hair gone, his movements slowed. A bullet punched a hole in the windshield. The Stork’s tail lifted immediately I opened the throttle. The horsemen scattered as her wheels passed level with their heads.

    I limped back to Uncle Pepé, the stops a blur. He listened to my account, then nodded as I finished.

    “Seville is ours. We’re advancing along the Malaga road. Those Republicans you saw will taste our justice. Get your plane checked. I want you to take me back to Spain.”

    The air force maintenance men tutted at bullet holes and twisted hinges, a legacy from my hasty exit with an open door. Their repairs were not quite what the Luftwaffe would have expected, but adequate.

    Sporadic gunfire could still be heard from Ronda as I set down the Stork near soldiers on the road before the town. “They’re Nationalists,” confirmed the colonel. At least they seemed more disciplined than the wild horsemen at my last departure.

    Uncle Pepé’s rank produced a battered Renault. The town, now quiet, bore scars from the Nationalist assault, but the shots we’d heard were from a firing squad, corpses now draped across a donkey cart. The Colonel gave an order to an NCO, who saluted then led us to the bridge. I looked down on the Guadalevin, tumbling through rocks below. Some still bore evidence of the horror I’d witnessed days before.

    “Tráelos aquí,” snapped Uncle Pepé.

    I’d learned a few Spanish phrases. I had a premonition of what was to follow.

    Prisoners hobbled up from the chamber. Some were dragged, unable even to shuffle. All were bound, emaciated, except for one. Most were probably farm workers, poor and ill-informed. I’d heard that food was scarce, but nothing was wasted on these prisoners, not even bullets. Uncle Pepé barked an order. I didn’t need to understand the words. Ten men and a woman fell to their deaths in as many minutes. Most were perched on the parapet, then pushed. Those who could not stand or walk were thrown. One remained.

    “Es este el? El comunista?” demanded Uncle Pepé.

    He was thin, but not starving like the others. From the wall, he glared at the colonel, hatred palpable in those black eyes.

    Uncle Pepé looked at me. “’E is for you.”

    Emotions crowded my mind. “Am I no better than they? Was he responsible for Frans’ death? They’ll kill him anyway.”

    He spat on the jacket Frans had given me. The one with the little swastika above the wings. I seized his ankles and tipped him. He died without a sound.

    Hallucinations plagued the nights, but were they? I lay awake, revisited by horrors of that week. By day, a plan evolved. Gibraltar. Good as home. It was too easy. I should have known.

    "The ministry wants that plane,” said the attaché. The carrier 'Furious' is expecting you. She's cruising the Portuguese coast. They’ll send a fighter escort so you can find her. She'll take you close to France. You’ll be back in England in a few hops, eh?”

    There was no carrier. The error of trust dawned in those final moments. I was an embarrassment. Tanks empty, the engine died. I did not exist. Censored.

    “Don’t let her stall with no power on,” Frans’ words echoed in my head.

February 24, 2020 17:29

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Olivia Fairfax
22:48 Mar 05, 2020

It is a splendid idea that something triggers a memory that may have been a previous life. It's ambiguous but intriguing. It feels as if the events could have been real.


Eric Olsen
08:29 Mar 06, 2020

Thanks Olivia. >75% real.


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Eric Olsen
05:52 Mar 02, 2020

Why pending?


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